Ki No Bi Gin
If Kyoto Distillery had sought a quiet launch for its yuzu-centric Ki No Bi Gin in late 2016, it never stood a chance. The gin landed slap bang in the middle of a Japan mania, with the country at the forefront of our minds when it came to food, drink and design. If it was the first Japanese craft gin to launch, it certainly wasn’t the last, with several peers emerging in the months since.
There are some serious names behind Kyoto Distillery: Long serving drinks PR (and also co-founder of Vidda Gin) Marcin Miller, his business partner, Whisk-e Ltd founder David Croll, Suntory’s former Chief Blender Mas Onishi and distiller Alex Davies, a Heriot Watt graduate who earned his stripes at Chase and Cotswolds. Explaining the move towards gin – Japanese, specifically – Miller explains: “David and I have worked in Japanese whisky for a long time, and founded Number One Drinks Company in 2006. The landscape of the category has changed somewhat and we felt it was time to do something else.
“We both have a long-standing love of Gin! David pioneered the craft gin sector in Japan and I was involved with the creation of No. 3 Gin, as a consultant to Berry Bros. & Rudd. We felt the time was right to combine the meticulous Japanese approach to distilling with the plethora of extraordinary botanicals Kyoto has to offer.”
Local botanicals aren’t the end of the story, here; the gin is made on a rice wine base, which – Davies assures us – is a surprisingly delightful spirit to work with. “We unanimously picked the rise spirit out as our favourite in a blind tasting against spirits made from other raw materials such as wheat, corn, molasses and mixed grain. It provides a natural softness and sweetness in the final product,” he said, before adding one tiny detail. “It was also the most expensive spirit on the table…”
That Davies has been trusted with such a role at such a young age (he’s not yet 30) points towards a natural aptitude. He went from Heriot Watt to Chase, from Chase to Cotswolds and from Cotswolds to Kyoto within three years, and left a considerable mark on all of those places. Croll met Davies when he began distributing Chase within Japan, and Miller met him when he stopped by to say hello at The Whisky Show. Both were wowed by his knowledge and passion, which swirled around in a great burst of enthusiasm. In an ideal world, a Japanese gin would have had a Japanese gin distiller, but as none at the right level of experience existed at the time, Davies was first choice.
There is little point making a Japanese gin that doesn’t celebrate the country in its every detail, and the best place to start with that is with its ingredients. Over 80 Japanese botanicals were trialled as the recipe was conceived, with each botanical trial tasted, tested, shortlisted and categorised. After this, blending trials began. Initially, the team worked with five categories (dubbed elements), each of which had around six botanicals, resulting in a 29-botanicals gin. “They tasted fantastic and very Japanese,” Davies said, “but when combined kept producing a gin that we felt did not really fit our flavour profile. There were too many voices talking over each other, it was all too cluttered, and it tasted far more traditional than we ever would have imagined because of this.
“This is when we decided to cull our botanicals and really focus on what it means to be a ‘Japanese’ gin. Looking more deeply into Japanese cuisine, it became obvious that we needed to go much more minimal and really focus on the overall balance of the gin. Every botanical had to have a very clear role to play, every botanical had to work with each other and every botanical had to balance.”
They scaled everything back, creating a sixth element that would eventually bring the botanical list down to 11. The proportions of the 11 ingredients were scaled up and down, with the final blend tweaked at least 30 times before the team were happy.
The final botanicals were then divided up into six recipes based on their ‘category,’ a method that allows each ingredients to be distilled to its very peak. There’s the base (juniper, orris root and hinoki), the citrus (lemon and yuzu), herbal (sansho and kinome), tea (gyokuru), spice (ginger) and fruity and floral (red shiso and bamboo leaf). All of the elements are pot distilled, with the botanicals steeped in the rice spirit overnight. The runs takes between five and 12 hours, depending on what recipe is being distilled.
Once distilled, the elements are combined in Kyoto Distillery’s blending tank, then taken down to blending strength with underground Fushimi water. The water is picked up from a local sake brewery once a week, a considerable effort on the distillery’s part, but one that Davies argues is necessary due to how “spectacular” it is. It is treated as an ingredient, not just as a tool to lower the ABV.
Ki No Bi Gin to taste…
Despite the vast scattering of wildcard botanicals populating Ki No Bi gin, the initial sniff brings a great familiarity with it. Juniper is clearly present, oily, sappy and rich but it’s the Yuzu that quickly makes itself known, filling the nose with a sherbet flush that falls somewhere between orange pith and lemon flesh. The other botanicals aren’t quite quiet, but they all seem to blend together, with nothing too discernible, save for a flicker of tea so subtle it’s almost as if you were dreaming it.
Sipping this neat made our eyes pop out of our heads like cartoon curmudgeons. It’s not harsh or sharp or any mix of the two, but the flavours are so intense as to briefly stun. That lemon/yuzu combination dominates, joined by a briny sansho taste and not-too-bitter tea. Sansho and ginger conspire with Ki No Bi’s considerable 45.7% ABV to pack in some real heat, lighting a savoury fire in the chest that burns bright longer after the sip is supped. Juniper is present throughout the entire tasting process, cracking the whip every so often like a circus ringleader and ensuring none of the stranger ingredients get too carried away with themselves. It’s as strange as it is tasty, treading whole new boards for the category whilst weaving respect for its history into every sip.
Tonic, as it tends to do, ups the citrus ante, coating the tongue and teeth and gums in fresh lemon zest and dominating the entirety of the G&T. It’s superbly refreshing and summer’s day material, calling out for a rosemary sprig garnish (not very Japanese, no, but delicious). Such is its smooth intensity and botanical strangeness that this is a gin positively demanding to be put in a Martini – try it in a bar, but Ki No Bi will go right up into your must have bottle list.
A commitment to quality begins with ingredients – a fact which hasn’t gone over the Kyoto team’s heads. “We work tirelessly to source the highest possible ingredients grown in the Kyoto prefecture, build and maintain close relationships with our farmers and even, as is the case with Yuzu. Harvest our botanicals by hand before prepping them back in the distillery,” Miller told us.
This, of course, brings its own problems, or rather, problem: seasonality. Davies and co strive to use fresh ingredients where they can, but as yuzu, lemon, sansho, kinome and red shiso are bound by the turning of time, this requires a lot of planning. “It’s not like we can just call someone up in June and ask for some more yuzu,” Davies explains. “It just won’t happen, and the dried yuzu peel and brined sansho you can find all year around simply doesn’t compare at all.
“This also meant that trials took a full year to run as it took a year for us to actually taste and run trials on all of the botanicals that we wanted to and then when we were firming up on a recipe we had to make sure we were ordering the botanicals in large enough quantities to last a full year! It was definitely a little stressful at the time. Now we talk to our farmers and order a year or two in advance – we are already looking into 2019 for this exact reason.”
You can see form a distance that all this effort is paying off. The gin is flying in both Japan and the UK, and has received a huge reception in Austira, Belgium, China, Denmark, France, Holland, Hong Kong, Italy, Portugal, Singapore, Spain, Switzerland, Taiwan and America. Demand is far, far outstripping supply, with that thirst for all things Japan showing no signs of slowing.
The branding helps, of course. Ki No Bi is a beautiful offering, with the so-dark-green-its-almost-black bottle not only printed on directly with white and foil, but embossed with the distillery logo and capped off with a copper lid. It screams luxury, especially once housed inside its gift box package. Granted, £45 is a lot of money for a bottle of gin, but given that this really and truly takes its drinker on an adventure though the Japanese countryside, we think it’s well worth it, and given its home country’s predilection towards collections, may well become something worth storing…
We’re excited by Ki No Bi. It’s a masterclass in making hyper local gin without making it hyper weird. If you compare the alien strangeness of the many Australian or South African gins on offer with the almost traditional elements of this Japanese offering, it shows just how well other, more unusual botanicals can combine with the beautiful juniper berry.
For more information about Kyoto Distillery, visit the website: kyotodistillery.jp
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